Japan Temples and Shrines

Torii gates

Torii, the iconically Japanese gateways that typically mark the entrance to Shinto shrines are ubiquitous all over the country, and are even used as a symbol on maps to mark the location of a shrine. The torii marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred. The torri above and below is an icon of Japan, second only to Mount Fuji, the floating torii of Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Itsukushima torii is an example of a Ryobu style torii. At 16 meters, it is probably the largest wooden torii in Japan and is made out of Camphor wood.

Torii range in size from only a few inches high to monumental structures straddling roads, and whilst wood and stone were the earliest known construction materials, concrete, steel, bronze, ceramic, and even plastic are used today. The red colour of the gate symbolises vitality and protection against evil, but practically, serves to preserve the gate, as the paint is made of mercury.

Originally they were probably not just associated with shrines, but rather many kinds of sacred space. However in the middle of the 19th century the government banned the use of torii at any place other than officially registered shrines of the new State Shinto religion. Nowadays torii can also be seen in Buddhist temples.

There are a wide variety of torii styles with numerous sub-styles, as well as individually unique torii. The most commonly seen style is known as Myojin Torii. These feature an upwardly curving top lintel, known as kasagi, and a common sub-style is Ryobu that feature a pair of small pillars supporting the main pillars. Another major style is Shinmei, featuring uprights, hashira, and cross pieces that are straight.

A feature of Inari shrines are virtual tunnels composed of multiple, vermillion torii, each one usually featuring the name of the person or business who donated it. The one pictured below is the most well known example at Fushimi Inari near Kyoto – taken on my 2014 trip  – with close to 10.000 torri gates.

Currently the largest torii in the world is this one at Kumano Hongu Taisha in the small town of Hongu in Wakayama, part of the Kumano Kodo. It is almost 40 meters tall and 42 meters wide, constructed out of steel.

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